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A new treatment to repair damaged nerves could help thousands of patients regain movement in their arms and legs.

Using a finely woven plastic tube, surgeons will regrow and reconnect severed nerves in road and work accident victims.

The neural prosthesis is attached to the ends of the damaged nerve and acts as a scaffold to aid repair.

Victorian doctors say the advanced surgical technique is more effective than nerve grafts and will restore sensation in the limbs of victims.

St Vincent’s Hospital neurosurgeon Assoc Prof Michael Murphy said the device was a vast improvement. “You can’t stretch severed nerves,” he said.

“You can do a graft, taking nerves from elsewhere in the body, but the end result is poor. If the tubular scaffold works, it will speed up repair and improve the outcome.”

Chemicals in the polymer tube accelerate regrowth of nerve cells, allowing the nerve to grow up to 4mm a day. And there is no need for surgery to remove the biodegradable tube because it breaks down within nine months.

The cutting-edge treatment has been developed by Bionic Technologies Australia — a $6 million state government-funded project. Involved in the research is the Bionic Ear Institute, St Vincent’s Hospital, CSIRO, University of Wollongong and Melbourne-based biomaterials company PolyNovo.

Prof Murphy said that a similar repair device was used on patients in the US, including those with severe cuts and trauma injuries.

He said 5 per cent of all hospital patients suffered peripheral nerve damage — 60 per cent of those patients were car and motorbike accident victims and 15 per cent were injured in falls and industrial mishaps.

Most of these injuries occur to the arms, legs, hands and feet.

In the next 2 years Prof Murphy and his team will trial the plastic scaffold on animals before progressing to clinical trials.

Scientists at Bionic Technologies Australia are also researching treatments including a device to detect and control epileptic seizures.

[21Sept06, Kate Jones, medical reporter,]